COLUMBIA, S.C. — Steve Spurrier has said several times that No. 9 South Carolina has plenty of good players, just no one knows it yet.
The Gamecocks coach better hope that’s especially true in the secondary, where the team enters this season without last year’s lockdown standouts Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree — and will lean heavily on freshmen Chris Lammons, Wesley Green and Al Harris Jr. to rotate into the mix this fall.
“That’s my goal,” to start, said Harris, the son of former NFL defensive back Al Harris. “I just have to keep working and stay focused.”
There are increased expectations on all three young players, who will need to provide big plays and depth to an area full of questions for South Carolina.
Hampton and Legree combined for 23 starts last year and six of the Gamecocks’ 18 interceptions. Legree was second on the team with 55 tackles, Hampton close behind in fourth with 51.
Their absence could signal opposing quarterbacks and receivers that it’s open season to attack the secondary this fall.
That won’t be the case, said Williams, as the young players have developed throughout camp.
“All three of them they stand out to me,” he said.
Williams said Harris has shown an aggressiveness to face up with receivers.
“He knows how to get the ball out of receivers’ hands,” Williams said.
Harris credits his father, the former Pro Bowl cornerback for the Green Bay Packers, for teaching him how to play the position. The younger Harris has done the rest himself since enrolling in January and going through spring workouts.
“It’s what I wanted to do because I knew it would help me get better,” Harris Jr. said.
The path for Lammons and Green at South Carolina wasn’t so easy. The two were not cleared by the university for enrollment until days before practice began earlier this month despite receiving the OK from the NCAA clearing house.
The two became friends on a recruiting visit here in December and reached out to one another as they awaited approval.
“We kept each other motivated,” Lammons said.
Once in school, the two joined Harris and turned their approach to the practice field and made a fast impression. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said the secondary gave up fewer long balls at a scrimmage this past Saturday than in the Gamecocks’ first one earlier in camp. If the game were right now, Ward would have Harris alongside Williams on the outside.
“But we’ll see as we get closer,” Ward said.
The Gamecocks should be more secure at the safety spot where experienced defenders Chaz Elder and Chris Moody are in line to start, Ward said, with T.J. Gurley and Kadetrix “J.J.” Marcus are close behind.
Ward and defensive backs coach Grady Brown believe their young players can provide a similar cushion on the outside. The three have shown the ability to stick with Gamecocks top receivers and swat away passes at camp.
Knowing the depth problems ahead, South Carolina brought in five cornerbacks in its latest class last winter including D.J. Smith and Darin Smalls. While Smith is competing for a backup spot, Smalls did not qualify for admission.
That’s put an even higher priority on those newcomers on the roster to improve quickly. Lammons said he’s spent most nights in his playbook learning coverages.
“I want to be as ready as I can,” he said.
Harris and Green share that ethic. The three say they’ve formed a bond in their short time together to push each other forward.
“We work together, we encourage each other,” Harris said. “Being that we’re true freshmen, we’re going to make some mistakes, but we have to be there to lift each other up.”
The Gamecocks hope the three also lift up their position for defensive success.